The Lord's Prayer
Our Father in Heaven (Mat. 6:9)
by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith
The first words of the Lord's prayer tell us how to address God in
prayer. Since, as we said before, this prayer is both an example of
a prayer that we can use and also general instruction about prayer,
the words of address are especially important. These words remind us
both who we are and who God is. They define our relationship with Him
and with one another. We receive not only instruction in prayer, but
also encouragement to pray.
To begin with, the Lord's prayer is a corporate prayer. This does not
mean that we cannot offer this prayer when we are alone, nor does it
imply that it is wrong for us to pray to God as "my Father."
But like those creeds and confessions which use the plural, such as
the Westminster Confession (although mostly stated in objective third
person form, it uses the first person plural also, I:5, VI:1, etc.)
rather than the singular, such as the Apostles' Creed, there is special
emphasis placed on the fact that we belong to a group.
There is, of course, such a thing as "Biblical individualism."
We can only believe in God as individuals; no one else can believe in
God for us. We will stand before God and give account of ourselves as
individuals and we will be rewarded or punished forever as individuals.
The Bible calls each of us individually to trust in God and offer prayer
to Him as individuals who have a personal relationship with Him. In
all of these matters, then, the Bible forces us to stand alone before
But for all that, the Bible is not a book that teaches us that humans
are separate and alone. Children are supposed to be born into the world
in the context of a covenantal group called a family. Though sinful
men often violate the Biblical standard, they cannot erase the fact
that they have ancestors, nor their covenantal connection with Adam
and his sin. Also men are usually involved in other covenantal groups,
such as the Church and the State. Those men who choose to avoid contact
with others in order to become "greater" in some sense, by
becoming "holy hermits," for example, in fact loose part of
In the Lord's prayer, then, we are taught to think of ourselves as
part of a larger group with whom we are praying, even if we happen to
be offering our prayer alone. In fact, even when we offer the Lord's
prayer together with our family or in our local church, the word "our"
does not refer to the little group gathered at the time the prayer is
being offered. The "our" refers to all of those who rightly
call God their Father. We pray as members of the body of Christ. And
Jesus teaches us here that we should be conscious of the fact that we
pray with others who come to God, just like we do, as His beloved children.
This has important meaning for our daily lives, for the way that we
identify ourselves in prayer is our most important self-identification.
How we stand before God is more important than how we stand before the
civil government, as citizens of this or that nation, and more important
than how we stand before society, as members of this or that family.
We are members of families and nations, to be sure, but we are first
of all and primarily the children of God. We belong to His kingdom and
to His family. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:1) where our Father
It is important also that we understand that we are given permission
to call on God as our Father. In the larger context of the Sermon on
the Mount, it seems to be one of the main things Jesus intends to emphasize
(cf. 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26: 7:11). To be able
to come to God in prayer and call Him our Father suggests a new intimacy
that is not found in the Old Testament. Though God was indeed called
the Father of the fatherless (cf. Ps. 68:5, etc.), was said to pity
men as a Father (Ps. 103:13) and was addressed even as "our Father"
on occasion (Isa. 63:16; 64:8), the words "our Father" do
not express the typical or daily manner in which the Jews approached
God. For us, they do. We are to come daily before the throne of the
Everlasting Majesty and call Him, "our Father."
Not only do these words suggest the wonderful intimacy of our approach
to God, but they contain a guarantee of His love, for it is God Himself
who teaches us to come before Him and call Him Father. If our fathers
on earth know how to give us good things because they love us, how much
more may we be assured that our Father in heaven loves us?
The world has perverted the truth of God's love into the idea that
love is God, but that just means it is all the more important for us
to understand His love correctly. In the Garden Satan denied God's love
when he tempted Adam and Eve. Ever since then, suggesting that God does
not really love us is one of Satan's basic means of tempting men to
deny Him. Our Lord teaches us to believe in God as our Father in heaven
and, thus, to trust in His love and goodness. When we learn to pray
to Him as Father, we will not be so easily tempted to discouragement
When we think of the words "our Father" we are reminded of
the expression used by Paul, "Abba Father." This is an even
more intimate expression for addressing God and one that further explains
the idea of addressing God as Father. We can call Him Father because
He has adopted us as His children: "ye have received the Spirit
of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15b). The words
that the Spirit of adoption suggests to us are the very words our Lord
used when He prayed in the Garden: "And he said, Abba, Father,
all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless
not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mk. 14:36).
Who Art In Heaven
We come to God, then, with the confidence that He loves us as His children
and will hear our prayers. But we also come to One who is majestic and
glorious. His home is in heaven because He is the transcendent God,
Lord over all. When we come to Him in prayer, we must remember His greatness
no less than His Fatherhood. We must remember His holiness no less than
His love. Jesus teaches us not to forget reverence when we approach
But these words are not here just to remind us that He is greater than
we. These words are intended as a comfort also, for the fact that He
is the Lord of heaven, sovereign over all things, means that He can
answer our prayers. We are coming to a Father who has the power to do
what we ask and the wisdom to say no to us when we ask wrongly. If we
are addressing the heavenly One, we should ask for things of heavenly
grandeur. It is not wrong for us to ask God for small things, and we
often do, but it is wrong if we do not ask God for the great things,
for Jesus, in the next few petitions teaches us to address God in heaven
with petitions that are worthy of heaven's consideration.
To come to God in heaven is to be admitted to the audience of the most
powerful Being and we invited to enter His presence with assurance of
His Fatherly love and care. Why should we fear? Why don't we bring all
things to Him in prayer? Why do we not seek great things from our great
Father so that we may see His kingdom come and His name honored? Our
Lord encourages us in all these matters and calls us to rest in God,
for He is our Father in heaven.
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